Farewell My Queen – Benoît Jacquot and the object of desire between women. (French Film Festival film review)

I enjoyed this film much more than I expected to, but because it was capped off with a wonderful chance to chat with Benoît Jacquot who is a very charming man, it somehow turned a night at the cinema into an event.

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Farewell My Queen is billed as the final days of Marie Antoinette’s reign, but it is also a film about the social politics of the running of a palace like Versailles.   One of the most interesting aspects of the film is watching the servants deal with the impending prospect that the revolution will displace the monarchs and the entourage they attend. Some will be fiercely loyal, some will gleefully loot the palace as they wait for their time to rise up and others will go about their business as if it were any other day.

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While Diane Kruger’s Marie Antoinette is a splendid character wonderfully portrayed, the cleverness of taking the point of view of an unknown maid who has no story to tell of her own, means we get a proper and pulsing narrative of the demise of one way of life and the rise of another. Sidonie Laborde, the Queen’s reader (played by Léa Seydoux, a woman Jacquot described afterwards as always looking as thought she is naked no matter how she is dressed) is a tease of a character.  We know nothing about her, because she is a nothing. Her status in the country, in the castle and as the servant of her Queen is as a nothing, and it is precisely this point the revolution is seeking to overthrow.  The films dark crises can only take place because Laborde has no role in life but to seek the favor of her Queen.

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In the novel of the same name (that I have not read) by Chantal Thomas, Laborde is an older woman, more along the lines of  Madame Campan played by Noémie Lvovsky in the film. By making Laborde a younger female “who always looks naked no matter what she is wearing” Jacquot inserts a new revelation into the possible dynamics that might have (and probably did) existed in the final days of power of Marie Antoinette. Because of her anonymity, her vulnerability and her sexually charged presence  and because of the supposed psycho-sexual relationship between the Queen and Gabrielle de Polignac (played by Virginie Ledoyen) a fascinating narrative of desire and possession balances itself delicately against the primary plot line of the gossip around castle grounds about the forthcoming revolution and the promised death of the upper classes.

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Laborde comes to symbolize the  “objet petit a” in Lacanian terms. As a servant she is the unattainable desire in that she is the nobody who exists only to serve her queen. That is, her existence is actuated only when the Queen is satisfied by her. And yet she is “needed” even when she is not “needed” (that is she must continually exist on the castle grounds) in order to fulfill her role in establishing the Queen’s desire to be all that the Queen is. This is who the servants are – objects placed around the ruling class in order to emphasize their ability to fulfill their own desire to rule.

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In philosophical terms there is also a complex balance between subject and object here being carried out. However when Jacquot inserts a triangle based on desire and propelled by power, he adds the Lacanian slant to the narrative. Because of this, it would be a very interesting film to examine from a psychoanalytical viewpoint.

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Jacquot told us after the film that very few films have been made in France about Marie Antoinette. Most of the previous films were American.  I guess she was a little like Hitler and the Germans – everyone was talking about her except the French. His favorite of these interpretations was the 1938 films Marie Antoinette made by Woody Van Dyke – a film I have yet to see. He also mentioned he never imagined Diane Kruger in the role, but she contacted him and begged to be allowed to try out for it and eventually was seen to be perfect for the role.  Léa Seydoux was chosen for her sultry appeal, and for her superior acting skills which Jacquot says are sadly lacking in young French actresses today.  (interesting claim)

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Farewell My Queen is shot in Versaille, but Jacquot kept the shots to the halls and corridors as much as possible, preferring to keep away from the tourist point of view when advancing the grandeur of the location. They used the palace at nights and on Monday’s when it was closed to the public.  What was at stake was a transition from this physical location that means so much, into a mental location that can mean something – if not different then at least something from a new perspective. This new mental location can produce a dream or a nightmare and it is this premise that the film hangs on. The principle here, according to Jacquot, was to start with the lights.  Much of the film takes place at night, and Jacqot told us that because of the weak throw of candle light, you could never see more than a meter in front of you. Anything could happen. The best and the worst. For this reason, Jacquot chose never to film the start or the end of a corridor.

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Farewell my Queen is a film that can be watched many times over because of its complex relationships and fascinating psychoanalytical sub plots. It is a film you will be very glad you saw.

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